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The national interest and what’s in the interest of the nation: Confusion in the European system

A leitmotif of the the British debate on the EU is that ‘we’ don’t always/often/ever (delete as applicable) get what we want.

Thus, we’re told about all the times the UK gets outvoted, or the structural impossibility of UK MEPs blocking anything in the Parliament.

3922What is interesting is the conceptualisation that underpins this view. In it, the only people who can represent the British are the British, and any non-British must hold different views (presumably because they are representing their own country). This is realism writ large, where we have to fight for what we want and we cannot really trust any one else, because if we gain on something, then they must lose, so everyone has to try to win to protect themselves.

There are at least two responses to this understanding, both of which bear some discussion.

Firstly, if you accept the realist approach, then you can also accept that the EU is designed to thwart our baser instincts. Just as the UK can’t block legislation by itself, or force others to cleave to its will, then nor can any other member state, even the largest. Moreover, the legislative process divides power between national governments (in the Council) and directly elected representatives (in the Parliament), with an independent Commission being the only ones able to propose anything, and an independent Court provided with extensive powers to ensure that everyone follows their treaty commitments. In short, the EU is a vehicle of power-diffusion, so we should not be surprised to find our power diffused and constrained.

This leads rather nicely into the second response, namely that it is not only the UK that wants what the UK wants.

I’ve always have a problem with the notion of a ‘national interest’, since it invariably means ‘the interest of one part of a state, and often not the largest part thereof’. Essentially, to speak of the national interest is to use a rhetorical device to build local consensus for a specific purpose. Hence it pops up all over the place and its content seem to change from situation to situation, and from time to time.

Just as the UK contains many different interests – as evidenced by the proliferation of political parties, interest groups, public activities and all the rest – so too do other states contain many interests. If you can accept that liberal position, then you can see that some of the interests found in the UK will also be found in other states. Hence MEPs sit in party groups, not national ones, and pan-European interest groups lobby in Brussels.

This isn’t to say that states are irrelevant, since they still formally control the system, but rather that from issue to issue there exist different constellations of interests and preferences. This means that what matters is how well a specific coalition can be built to promote your interest (whoever ‘you’ might be).

The ultimate irony in all this is that the British government (or its civil servants and diplomats at least) has long known this and has been one of the most active proponents of issue-specific coalitions. Thus, they work with the French on defence, Sweden on welfare, the Netherlands on free trade, and so on. This is done not only because it is effective, but also because the traditional alliances have broken down in the Union. Most obviously, the Franco-German ‘motor’ has collapsed, quite possibly for good, while the economic and political havoc amongst the PIIGS limits their ability to coordinate themselves.

If we see the world in the realist way that I set out at the top, then there is the potential that we create a new kind of structural position, namely the UK-as-outsider. That serves withdrawalist agendas, since it is self-reinforcing (why bother working with (or making concessions for) a country about to leave?), but it doesn’t necessarily serve other agendas.

Nobody likes, we don’t care” might serve as a football chant, but not as a political philiosophy. #NotInMyName, indeed.



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